The Koren Sacks Rosh Hashana Mahzor

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After the Koren Sacks Siddur, Koren Publishers has now published the Koren Sacks Rosh Hashana Mahzor.

Rosh Hashana is one of the most important holidays of the Jewish year yet, because of its length, it is not always the meaningful and transformative experience it is supposed to be.

Like the siddur, this new Mahzor provides a spiritual guide to the different services through Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s translation, introduction and commentary.

Those familiar with Rabbi Sacks’s weekly commentary on the parsha will recognize his powerful style and all will appreciate the introduction and the Chief Rabbi’s ability to provide insights that are most valuable to modern man or woman as they seek “to understand their place in the world and their places before God”.

The Mahzor shares a number of features with the Koren Sacks Siddur:

– The Hebrew on the left and the English translation on the right – I have already commented here that this is not a problem at all.

– An unambiguous and exhaustive table of contents that helps us navigate the prayer book.

– A very clear layout with more paragraphs than in most siddurim, distinguishing poetry from prose.

– References to Biblical passages in the margin next to the text and not in the footnotes.

– The commentary at the bottom of each page and the additional explanations at the end of the siddur.

In addition to the prayers and blessings to be said at home during the High Holidays, the Koren Sacks Rosh Hashana Mahzor provides the blessings for the Rosh Hashana seder, additional piyutim and a Halakh Guide.

The Koren Sacks Rosh Hashana Mahzor will certainly be a welcome addition to the Mahzorim already in use and should soon prove to be as valuable as the Koren Sacks Siddur for those looking for a Mahzor that provides the necessary understanding of the High Holidays.

I want to thank Koren Publishers for sending me a review copy of the Koren Sacks Rosh Hashana Mahzor.

New Koren Siddur: First Impressions

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I received the new Koren Sacks Siddur last week and started using it after Shabbat. I had already reviewed this siddur but it is one thing to know about something and quite another to actually experience it. Here are my first impressions about the new siddur.

– The Hebrew on the left and the English translation on the right. I had read about this in one or two articles where people said it had taken them five minutes to get used to this new organisation. As far as I am concerned I guess it took me about thirty seconds. It just feels natural.

– A very clear layout with more paragraphs than in most siddurim.

– References to Biblical passges in the margin next to the text and not in footnotes. This means you are not distracted from the text if you wish to know where a passage originally comes from.

– The commentary at the bottom of each page and the additional explanations at the end of the siddur.

I have noticed a few differences between the original British Sacks Siddur and the Koren Sacks Siddur.

The ones I like:
– In the Amidah, the optional paragraph when you wish to add personal requests is in the middle of the blessing and not after which is more logical and convenient.
– The table of contents is slightly different and more explicit. I feel it is much easier to find a particular prayer.

The ones I don’t like so much:
– No paragraph for air or sea travelers in the Tefilat HaDerech (traveler’s prayer).
– No shorter form of grace after the Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals).

So far I have found it very user-friendly and reckon I am going to adopt it as my daily siddur.

Unetanneh Tokef

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ונתנה תוקף

This medieval prayer is attributed to Rabbi Amon of Mainz. It is associated with Rosh Hashanah as it introuduces  the Kedusha of Musaf on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The story behind its composition and the reason why we now sing this prayer is quite dramatic.

“The great shofar is sounded… A still small voice is heard…
Even the angels are frightened… the Day of Judgment is here…
Who shall live? And who shall die?
Who shall find rest? And who shall be restless?
Who shall be raised up? And who shall be humbled?
Who shall be rich? And who shall be poor?
But – Atonement, Prayer and Good Deeds deflect the harsh decree!
As for Man, he comes from dust
And to dust he shall return…”

Man is like…
Grass that withers… A flower that fades… A shadow that passes…”

You can hear a variety of versions of this beautiful and moving piyyut by clicking here. Even Leonard Cohen wrote his own version, better-known as Who by Fire.

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling ?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling ?
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling ?

Picking Out a Siddur

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Another step in becoming observant is learning Jewish prayers. To pray one needs a prayer book. In Hebrew the word is siddur (Hebrew: סידור; plural siddurim), from the word seder which means order because our prayers follow a set order.

So I set out to buy a siddur, went to a Judaica store in Paris and explained, too briefly as you’ll see, what I wanted. The shop-keeper advised a recent prayer book with explanations. The text was in Hebrew on the right and in French on the right. I did not look at any other version and bought this one.

I was quite happy with it for a while until I discovered its shortcomings. The siddur was a Sephardi version and I wanted an Ashkenazi one; all my fault since I should have asked for it specifically. What’s more, whenever a prayer had already been featured in a previous service, it was not repeated with the French text, only in Hebrew and in much smaller type. For someone who was struggling with Hebrew, this was not a detail. Finally it was a bit too big for travelling.

So I went online and typed “siddur” on the French Amazon website and the first that came up was The Complete ArtScroll Siddur. I then ordered the pocket-size thinking it would be easier to carry around. I made sure not to repeat the same mistake and chose the Ashkenazi edition.

Mostly it was fine but the fonts were a bit small this time for every day use. At that point I decided that one really needs two siddurim, at least, one for every day and one for traveling. I consulted my rabbi about the Sim Shalom siddur and he advised the older edition, mainly for the translation.

Some time later I was staying with a friend a little before he left for a ten day visit of Hungary and Poland. He mentioned that he did not have a small Ashkenazi siddur to travel. Since I had my copy with me, I gave it to him.

I now had one big Askenazi siddur but no small one. At that time Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks released a new commented version of the famous Singer’s Prayer Book with a new and more modern commentary. This time there were more sizes and I settled for the standard edition which is bigger than a pocket-size but smaller than the big one.

It turned out to be the perfect choice. It is pleasant to use on a daily basis but also easy to put in a bagpack when traveling.

What siddur(im) do you use and why?

Getting Ready for Shavuot?

bikurims.jpgAsk anyone what the most important Jewish Holy Day is and you’ll probably get two different answers: Yom Kippur and Pesach.

Lots of people will actually mention Yom Kippur because of the many Jews for whom it is the only day they re-connect with their Jewish roots. In France we have a term for them, Kippur Jews.

Yet Jewish tradition would seem to indicate that Pesach is more important. Thus the sages say that we are obligated to remember every day that God took us out of Egypt. Jewish men do so by wearing Tefillin, a pair of black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with biblical verses which refer to this event when they pray in the morning. We all do so by reciting the Shema evening and morning or when we say the Birkat Hamazon after a meal and on numerous other occasions.

What about Shavuot? The Jewish holiday we celebrate on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, beginning in the evening of June 8th this year. In fact, if we look carefully at the Torah passages that we read during the morning prayer, we’ll see that we evoke Shavuot and the Book of Ruth (which we read on this Festival) every day too.

This excerpt is situated at the beginning of the morning prayer, after the blessings over the Torah. After these blessings (because we must not say a blessing in vain) we read three different passages from the Torah. One from the Written Torah and two from the Talmud (one from the Mishnah and the other one from the Gemara).

This is the Mishnah passage:
These are the things that have no measure: The Peah of the field, the first-fruits, the appearance [at the Temple in Jerusalem on Pilgrimage Festivals], acts of kindness, and the study of the Torah. (Peah 1:1)

In the Book of Ruth, it is thanks to the Peah that, at one point, Ruth and Naomi can survive.

– Shavuot was the first day on which individuals could bring the Bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem.

– Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Shalosh Regalim, when the Israelites living in ancient Israel and Judea would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There they would participate in festivities and ritual worship in conjunction with the services of the kohanim (“priests”) at the Temple.

Acts of kindness is a major theme in the Book of Ruth.

– To prepare for Shavuot there is an ancient tradition of all-night Torah study when men and women attend classes on the first evening of the Festival until the early hours of the morning.

Feel you want to know more? Stay tuned and visit this blog as well as Leora’s blog for more insights on the Book of Ruth and its significance as from next week.

Survey: Morning Blessings (birkat ha-shachar)

Traditional Jews believe that they are obligated to pray three times a day – morning, afternoon and evening.  The morning blessings are recited (some privately upon awakening, and some publicly in the Shacharit service) to express our gratitude to G-d for enabling us to start a new day, refreshed and reinvigorated. 

Originally recited by individuals in their home as they awoke, washed, and dressed for the day, these blessings, such as thanking God for giving sight to the blind (once recited before one opened his or her eyes in the morning), raising the downtrodden (recited before standing up from bed), and clothing the naked (recited before getting dressed), were transferred to the synagogue and included in the siddur. This section also included blessings after using the bathroom, a prayer thanking God for the creation of our souls, and selections of biblical and rabbinic texts to fulfill the daily mandatory requirement to study Torah every day. (myjewishlearning)

People disagree about the original, hence the correct, order of the 18 blessings, called birkat ha-shachar and which, with time, have become part of the communal morning service. 

In addition, Orthodox and Conservative Jews disagree on 3 of these blessings.

This is what Orthodox Jews say:

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who has not made me a heathen.

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who has not made me a slave.

Then men say:

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who has not made me a woman.

Whereas women say:

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who has made me according to his will. 

(Translation found in The Authorized Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth)

Now here is what Conservative Jews say:

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who made me in his image.

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who made a Jew.

Then both men and women say: 

– Praised are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe who made free. 

(Sim Shalom translation)

Apparently the original text was not fixed for some time and the Rabbinical Assembly gives the following interpretation for their wording.

The blessing “who created me a Jew” is the original version, it appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Menahot 43b). There R. Meir states that a Jew must say 3 blessings: “who created me a Jew”, “who did not create me a woman” and “who did not create me an ignorant”, R. Aha bar Yaakov replaced “ignorant” with “slave”. The blessing “who created me a Jew” was transformed into the negative form that we know: “who did not create me a goy” and the three negative blessings entered most sidurim. The positive “who created me a Jew” was maintained through the present time in the Italian rite and has existed in some Ashkenazi customs from the Middle Ages. The Vilna Gaon in the 18th century also supported the positive version. In the 20th century, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement proposed to change the two other blessing in “who created me a free person” and “who created me in His image”. 

The reason usually put forward for a male’s thanking G-d for not having been created a woman is that he is glad he has more mitzvot to fulfil than he would had he been created a woman. An explanation which frustrates me somewhat.

However in one of his novels, The Unorthodox Murder of Rabbi Wahl, Rabbi Telushkin has his main character, himself a rabbi too, provide the reader with another explanation and a personal innovation:

“I don’t make that blessing … It was written at a time when a high percentage of women died giving birth … Today very few women die in childbirth, and without that association all we’re left with is a blessing that makes men feel superior and women feel bad.” 

First I prefer this explanation; I believe I find it less condescending. Besides I admire the rabbi’s stance and also Telushkin for putting it in his novel, all the more so as Rabbi Winter often seems to be Telushkin’s spokesman. This is what the rabbi adds:

“… there are very old Jewish sources containing alternate versions of the blessing we will say. Fifteen hundred years ago already there were rabbis who were troubled by the negative phrasing of that blessing. So they reformulated it in a positive form, thanking G-d that we are free-born Jews.”

Now the survey:

– if you are a woman, what do you say?

– if you are a man, what do you think women ought to say?